Former, current employees talk about history of Evansville's oldest company

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Friday, February 3, 2012
— Dennis Atkinson fielded thousands of calls from customers during his 42-year career at Baker Manufacturing Company in Evansville.

Those calling for the first time to look up the history of a gas engine or find out when a windmill was built are especially amazed by the company, he said.

"They are amazed that it's still Baker Manufacturing Company," Atkinson said. "The name Baker—since 1873—with all the acquisition we're familiar with across the country. People are just amazed."

That's important to be proud of that fact, Atkinson told more than a dozen retired and current Baker employees Thursday during a roundtable discussion about the company's history.

Evansville native John Ehle and local historian Ruth Ann Montgomery gathered the group in the latest of their series of discussions to preserve the memories of local events and topics.

Baker Manufacturing was founded in 1873 and is by far the oldest company in Evansville. The company makes water system products, and one of its most well known products is the Monitor windmill.

Baker employs 150 in Evansville, along with 75 more at three locations in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida.

The group sat in a room at Creekside Place community/senior center downtown, looking out a window over Allen Creek at the Baker complex.

Discussion ranged from the company's products to the tight ship Gordon Baker ran to the issues women dealt with while being pregnant and working. Office employees talked about life before computers—running payroll and other accounting all by hand.

Those in the neighborhood would hear the whistle blow at 7 a.m. and again at noon, when workers would go home for an hour lunch.

Many of the men recalled starting in the grinding room—and how they quickly looked forward to moving to other departments such as the mechanic shop. Atkinson remembers his starting wage as $1.75 an hour back in 1969.

Workers laughed at how the Y2K scare in the final months of 1999 created quite the business for Baker.

Gary Deininger, who worked there from 1958 to 2000, remembered all the hand pumps he sold over the phone in late 1999.

"That was quite an experience," he said, explaining how he talked to people who lived in the hills of Tennessee and Kentucky and said they needed a hand pump. Yet many of the women he spoke with had no idea what the pump looked like.

Dave Olsen, Baker's current vice president, remembered the terms and conditions of those sales: No returns allowed.

"I think we made as many that year as we did in 10 or 15 years prior to that," he said.

The company averaged about 500 hand pumps annually, Atkinson said. In 1999, Baker sold more than 6,000.

"We're seeing the same increase today with the 2012 issue," he said. He's not anticipating hitting 6,000 but reported selling almost 900 last year compared to the average of 500.

The group always came back to what a great time they had working at Baker, especially because of their coworkers. The company has provided a lot to the community, everyone agreed, from scholarships to the long careers that supported the families of so many around the table.

At one point, rumblings about starting a union occurred, but it never went through, Don Olsen said. The shop committee would get together with management to work through grievance or benefit issues, and they all worked well together.

"It was a great place to work," he said.

Terry Jorgensen started at Baker during college vacations in 1971. He noted that while wages weren't as high as at General Motors in Janesville, which was a competitor for graduates, Baker was a family. People there are just nice, he said.

"To me, the people are more than what I've earned," he said.

Judy Bratzke started at Baker in 1970, and her husband drove the family's only car to his job at GM. Bratzke took her three children in a wagon to day care in the middle of winter so she could work her morning shift.

"Even though I didn't get to go to college like I wanted to," she said, "I probably learned more in my life working at Baker than I probably ever could have learned (going) to college."

Last updated: 7:48 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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